Many Happy Returns

by Margaret Jones.

Every week for a year, the routine was the same. At 4:00 p.m., I packed my bowl, a bag of rock salt, some small white candles and a story. I then drove five miles to an apartment complex that housed teen parents and their kids to conduct a storytelling session. Each week, several of them waited for me. With kids screaming on their laps and half-eaten pizza left on the table, they eagerly met me at the door. One called the rest of the apartments to let them know “The Storytelling Lady” had arrived and the hour- long session was about to begin.

Four or five of them came regularly, dropped their children off with the babysitter in the living room and gathered around a table in the counselor’s office. I poured the rock salt in the bowl and placed it in the middle of the table while handing each teen mom a candle. The room quieted as each participant solemnly prepared for storytelling. I began with, “So, let’s have a check-in. On a scale of one to five, one being the pits and five being great, how are you today?” The first participant reached for a match, lit her candle and placed it in the rock salt. “Well, I’m about a two today. My boyfriend left last night and he hasn’t come home yet.” The next participant followed suit. A candle was lit, placed in the bowl and a number given. When all had spoken, including the counselor and myself, we began our stories.

As an educator and trained therapeutic storyteller, I wanted to tell stories that contained universal themes that they could relate to such as loneliness, struggles in relationships, parenting and love. I chose to tell a medley of personal stories and fairytales like “The Three Languages” and “Vasalisa”. Each story was similar in that the protagonist was a female who sets out on a journey alone. She encounters several obstacles along the way but always manages a way out of her predicament by relying on her own wits or the help of friends both visible and invisible. The story predictably ends when some kind of transformation takes place or the heroine learns a valuable lesson about life.

The first storytelling session surprised me because these tattooed tough teenage girls were stunned into silence. As I looked at the faces around me, I could see that they had entered into the magical realm of story. One was gently swaying, as if to music, with her eyes closed. Another was intently staring into the circle of burning candles. There was no need for an immediate response. Each relished the silence like a congregation in prayer.

My responsibility at that point was to process the story so the participants could reflect on what meaning was found in the story. I asked questions such as “What characteristics did the main character have to possess in order to face the obstacles in the story?” A conversation would then ensue around characteristics such as courage, strength and hope for a better life to come.

My next question then was, “So, which of these characteristics do you see in yourself?” This created a perfect opportunity for them to see how they, too, had some of these traits. For many of them, it was a struggle to identify positive characteristics, but if one woman admitted she had courage, others would follow. One teen mom, who already had four children at age nineteen, said she was brave when she left her abusive boyfriend.

Another said she was courageous when she confronted her father about his drinking. I was always amazed by their abilities to respond to the stories and each week I left admiring these young women.

One week I was running behind schedule and had not prepared a story. I was very worried about facing these young women without a plan, but as soon as I lit a candle, I knew what to do. “Let’s make up a story together tonight,”  I said enthusiastically. The teen moms squirmed in their chairs. “We’re not storytellers like you are, Margaret.” I smiled more confidently than I felt and replied. “Everyone’s a storyteller.” I began as I usually did, “Once upon a time” and, for about three minutes, I wove a plot about a young girl who lived with her parents in a little town by the sea. She longed to see the world and one very dark night, set out to find freedom. She walked for miles in the woods with nothing except an apple and her stuffed animal.

Just as she was about to face her first obstacle, I stopped and turned to the teen mom next to me. She stared at me wide eyed. “Go on!” the listeners urged. She blinked a few times and opened her mouth. Out came a remarkable twist in the story where the character goes deeper into the night and faces another obstacle. She spoke for about three minutes and then turned to the listener on her right. A third participant picked up the story and on and on … until all of the women had contributed. Sometimes we went around the circle several times so the heroine could confront her foes, win her battles and eventually fall in love. They almost always lived happily ever after. In time, this was the only kind of storytelling we did. We had gone beyond the books.

What was it about this storytelling project that was so successful? Was it the grant that we, an adolescent substance abuse agency, received from the Office of Substance Abuse in the state of Maine that allowed us to offer this program for free? It certainly made it easier for me to get my foot in the door of private non-profit agencies. Was it the fact that it was an innovative model that used both personal and fictional stories with particular themes to awaken memories? Or was it because the project was long-term and targeted high-risk teenagers?

Upon reflection, its success was partially due to the fact the program lasted for almost a year, but mostly it was the consistency of the project, the reliability of my return week after week, that made this project work. Many storytellers say that when they tell stories to small children, the children oftentimes want to hear it over and over again. Well, in the world of teenagers who have no regularity in their lives, a repeat appearance from the same person each week is a monumental step towards trust. They came to my storytelling sessions because they knew what to expect. There were no surprises, only a candle waiting for them and an hour where they could bond with people their own age. They could look forward to being imaginative and to creating a world where the little guy (or girl) triumphed over the obstacles. In a supportive, nonjudgmental atmosphere, they knew that they would almost always feel better by the end of the session.

They also picked up some problem-solving skills and an ability to connect with their peers in healthy meaningful ways. This feeling of well-being in a safe environment could only contribute to better parenting skills. The counselor conveyed to me that she observed the teen mothers telling stories to their children in between storytelling sessions. In that way, I knew that by role modeling consistent patterns and activities that activated the imagination, I was contributing to their skills of being a better parent.

In the ancient oral tradition of storytelling, it was parents and the community of the tribe who told the stories to their children. In that exchange, they were transmitting family and community values and beliefs. They were also supporting the healthy development of their children and conveying the most profound of life’s lessons. For these high-risk teens who had few adults in their lives to teach them in this way, it fell upon me and other committed professionals to pass on this tradition. Just as small children clamor for the same story every night before going to bed, these teens sought the rituals inherent in our weekly gatherings; the same time, same place, a bowl of rock salt, a candle and an opportunity to create a story.

Their tales of tragedy and triumph were the stuff of legends. Each week they would set out on an adventure and face the battles of life. With each other’s support, they received guidance. As an example, one week they created a story whose character stood on the edge of a river running rampant and overflowing its banks. The character quickly closed her eyes and ‘Poof!’ a rubber raft appeared. The raft carried her safely to the other side where she faced a huge forest fire. Again a miracle occurred just as the flames were licking her feet. Deep in her pocket was a water pistol that her long lost brother had given to her before he died. The water soaked the character’s feet so she could run to safety.

By year’s end, these teens could tell stories like ancient bards. By learning to trust that I would appear each week and metaphorically tuck them into bed, they allowed themselves to enter into the powerful and magical world of storytelling. I can only imagine that they are doing it still, perhaps around their own kitchen table or beside their child’s bed with a candle cradled between their hands.


Originally published in Diving in the Moon, Issue 3, 2002.

Margaret Jones, M.Ed., is the Director of Prevention Services for Day One, Portland, Maine, an adolescent substance abuse agency that is currently in the fifth year of a storytelling grant. She has trained hundreds of professionals, both locally and nationally, to use storytelling in their work and has led storytelling groups with youth.

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